Moonlight Serenade

02/07/2020

When Tom Williams and I started this company 36 years ago, I also had a fulltime job running a printing plant. I was essentially a printer who ran a publishing company “on the side.”

That’s an interesting phrase, and it has become increasingly important in our economy. For that reason I looked it up in several online dictionaries, to see whether I could determine where it came from. None of them had anything to say about the etymology of the expression, but they all agreed that there were three distinct definitions.

One referred to a meal, usually in a restaurant. You might order a burger, for example, with French fries on the side.

Another had a sexual connotation. I’ll let you come up with your own example for that one.

Finally, there’s the usage I had in mind, of having a part-time job in addition to one’s primary occupation. Although no one said it, I’m guessing that the food-based usage came first, because the secondary dish was literally beside the main dish on the plate or table.

At any rate, the second job thing has become a big deal, and not just economically but politically as well. There is a common perception in America these days that, yes, there are plenty of jobs, but many of them aren’t very good. In order to get by, or afford health insurance, or whatever, people are obliged to work more than one of them.

According to a December 18th article in The New York Times, entitled “Earning Income on the Side is a Large and Growing Slice of American Life,” it’s a little more complicated than that. Recent surveys indicate that a quarter of all workers have more than one job, but only around one-third of those people do so out of financial necessity.

To be clear, financial necessity and wanting to have more money are not the same thing. Nearly half of multiple-job workers fall into the latter category, which means that about 80 percent of moonlighters either want or need the extra cash.

Why else would anyone work two jobs? Well, one reason might be called dedication, or the conviction that important work simply needs to be done. My wife falls into this category, working primarily as a school administrator but also consulting on literacy programs.

Some people work a second job for pleasure. I’ve had acquaintances who tended bar at night or taught tennis lessons or refereed basketball games just because it was fun. My sister works as an usher at a theater during live musical performances.

Double dipping has been with us always, but the nature of that second job seems to have changed. IRS data shows that nearly 20 percent of all taxpayers report self-employment income in addition to filing a W-2 from an employer, and of course there could be many more who don’t declare that income. It’s hard to nail down, but this growing segment appears to represent what has come to be known as the “gig economy.”

Investopedia defines a gig economy as a place where “temporary flexible jobs are commonplace and companies tend toward hiring independent contractors and freelancers instead of fulltime employees.” It estimates that one-third of the economy has already made the transition to the new mode.

The gig system is more efficient, because workers are only onboard when needed, which saves a lot more than merely wages. It saves on benefits, office space, management time, parking, human resource issues, and so on. If you believe that the evolution of business is driven by efficiency, it’s hard to argue with a gig economy.

There are advantages for workers as well, especially in terms of flexibility. A career can be tailored to fit time constraints, childrearing responsibilities, geographical limitations, and so on, without having to comply with all the rules that apply to regular employees. For workers who also have a “day job,” gigs can be fit in accordingly.

We tend to think of gig work as predominantly affecting certain industries, and that is true to some extent. Uber and other ride services have devastated the taxicab business, and Airbnb has reshaped the hotel industry, but they may have been simply low-hanging fruit. Like technological change, it will gradually affect everybody.

Take education, for example. Colleges and universities are not the first businesses that pop into your head when you think of temporary workers, but they are rapidly becoming more flexible. “Adjunct” professors can be added or subtracted on short notice in response to demand, and at much less cost than tenured faculty.

Across the spectrum of commerce the same dynamic holds true, but there is a downside to the great efficiency festival. The obvious problem is that it can cost traditional employees their jobs, but it can also harm them in more subtle ways. It can suppress their wages by offering a cheaper alternative, or curtail opportunities for advancement and learning new skills.

It can also be hard on the independent contractors themselves. Pressure to take gigs whenever they’re available can mean that workers can’t establish any regularity in their lives. Sleep patterns can be affected and relationships can suffer.

Moreover, gig workers often find themselves taking on the risk and stress that were previously borne by employers. Now they have to worry about the ups and downs of the business cycle, juggling demands from clients, keeping up with technology upgrades and getting paid.

In other words, all these independent contractors are in danger of becoming entrepreneurs like I was, and like many of you were, all those years ago. The main difference is that their partner is not somebody they met in college, but somebody they met on their smart phone.

I asked Google what the most popular gig apps were, and here is the top 10 list I got back.

Now you may be a lot more hip than I am, but I am only familiar with three of those companies, and one of them, YouTube, was not known to me as a source of contract labor. I have a feeling that we’re all going to get to know them better in the new decade.

Throughout all the years we have had this company, there have been employees who moonlighted at other jobs, and we have never objected. The only occasions in which it bothered us were when salespeople told us they wanted to make more money. We always told them that they would make out better if they just worked more hours right here. Sometimes I thought there was more to it than that.

There are a lot of reasons to work a second job, and I am sympathetic to all of them. I especially understand the instinct to have something of one’s own, and through that to take some measure of control over one’s own destiny.

To me that is the essence of the American dream. My wish for the new year is that it continues to work for coming generations, as it did for me.


You can e-mail Kevin at kfahy@fwpi.com.

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